Designing Dashboards

As PCs become an essential part of all of our business lives, dashboards are becoming the "must have" business intelligence technology.

Dashboard solutions have been around for over a decade, but are now becoming more popular as technology to enable the underlying information becomes easier to use.

Designing an effective business dashboard is more challenging than it might seem due both to the need to compress large amounts of business information into a small visual area and to the need to help people visually identify trends, patterns and anomalies, reason about what they see and help guide them toward effective decisions. Every dashboard component must effectively balance its share of the screen with the importance of the information it is imparting to the viewer.

The goal of a dashboard is to provide business users with relevant and actionable information that empowers them to make decisions in a more efficient manner than they could without a dashboard. Effective dashboards require a good design that takes into account the role a user plays within the organization and the specific tasks and responsibilities the user performs on a daily/weekly basis.

The first step in designing a dashboard is to understand what key performance indicators (KPIs) users are responsible for and which KPIs they wish to manage through their dashboard solution. For each KPI it is then necessary to decide if supporting analytics are required and, if so, what type of information would be needed to support analysis of that KPI.

Then the visual design of the dashboard can begin.

Dashboard components fall into two main categories: key performance indicators and supporting analytics. In either case, it is important to choose the visualization that best meets the end users' needs in relationship to the information they want to see.

For KPIs, there are 5 common alternatives:

  1. Alerts - warning messages (be careful of using red/green colours because of colour blind users)
  2. Traffic Lights - Red, Amber, Green lights in standard formation
  3. Trends - measuring performance against a norm (perhaps a budget or service level)
  4. Progress bars - usually used to show progress towards a milestone
  5. Gauges - a way of showing percentage over/under achievement of goals.

Finally the format of the underlying analytics available through drill down must also be designed.  Depending on the volume and complexity of data, this could take the form of traditional charts and tables or lists.

Do ensure that users can clearly see when the dashboard was last updated and what has changed and can easily understand timescales, values and context of the items displayed.

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